By Annette Hinkle
Old Europe, the Middle East and the American West. These are just a few of the melodic and rhythmic influences which frequently find their way into the music of Ottmar Liebert. In the course of listening to just a few of his songs, the mind’s eye can travel to locales as diverse as a street in Paris, a Cairo spice market or the deserts of New Mexico.
But ultimately, it is flamenco and the powerful strains of Spanish guitar that truly inspire this German native — and have since he first picked up an acoustic guitar as a child.
Though he will tell you, most flamenco players start much earlier than he did.
“I wasn’t very young — the gypsies start at two or three,” he says. “I got a guitar at 11 and had classical lessons at 12.”
Though Liebert really had his sights set on an electric guitar in those days, he understood full well the impracticalities of that desire.
“There was no way my parents would get me an electric guitar. It was too expensive and we lived in a small apartment, it would be too loud,” he says. “But I knew that if I learned classical guitar, which they could afford, it would be my start on this path.”
But that path was soon diverted by flamenco.
“I think the first time I heard it I was 14 — what got me was the fact it had the power of the electric guitar, but on an acoustic guitar. It was miles away from the image of the classical guitar player in a sweater. When I first encountered flamenco, it had the raw power and showed me the things rhythmically you can do.”
Liebert notes that where musicians like Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton found inspiration in the blues, for him, Flamenco was it. Liebert was also hugely influenced by the music of Carlos Santana and the funk of guitarists like Wah Wah Watson who played with Herbie Hancock’s band.
And these are all musical forms which have served him well over the years — with flamenco as the unifier. Liebert has recorded dozens of albums since the late 1980s in his unique contemporary flamenco style which brings in many other world music influences and along the way has been nominated for six Grammy’s and has earned multiple Gold and Platinum records.
This Saturday, June 15, Liebert comes to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) for a concert with his band Luna Negra, but earlier this week, he and his band stopped in Providence, R.I. for a gig.
“I’ve been living on a bus for eight days, so any place with a hotel room and coffee shop is fine with me,” he said of life in Providence.
In fact, though he grew up in Europe, Rhode Island isn’t all that far from where Liebert first lived when he moved to the United States — Boston. And it was in Boston that he decided music would be his career.
“I had been working what we musicians call a ‘day job’ as a bank teller,” explains Liebert. “I had apparently done a good job and after a year and half working and playing music at night, the bank manager said, ‘Would like you to go to a bank college? If you’re interested in a career in banking, we’ll pay for it.’”
Liebert says he paused for 30 seconds, and then said, “I’m not a banker with a hobby I’m a musician with a day job.”
“I quit. I thought what other position can I get where there’s no movement upwards and I found bike messenger,” he adds. “You’re independent, have no insurance, you’re on your own. You get hit by a car and it’s your problem.”
It also meant Liebert could make his own hours — so after midnight, he would often go into the studio (it was cheaper then) and start his messenger job later the next day.
That determination to firmly set his career path toward music led to his first recording contract and for the last 26 years, Liebert has called Santa Fe, N.M. home. He discovered the city on a road trip from Boston to help out a friend who was moving. Liebert never left. In Santa Fe he has come to understand the freedom and creativity that can result from combining a range of musical styles.
“Part of the Santa Fe thing is people fiercely mixing things together,” notes Liebert. “It’s considered tri-cultural — you have the Hispanic which is the Mexican and Spanish, the Native American and everything else is Anglo — whether its Chinese or African.”
“Early on, in ‘86 or ’87, I went to a restaurant where three musicians were playing — a flamenco player, a violinist and a banjo player,” says Liebert. “It was one of the weirdest things I ever heard. It what makes Santa Fe different.”
The wide open spaces of the American west also inspire possibilities — the kind only the vastness of landscape can bring. It certainly had an effect on Liebert.
“One day I climbed a mountain and looked out 50 or 100 miles. Growing up this was not something I had experienced,” says Liebert. “It shifted my mind and I began to think what do I want to do? Maybe not electric guitar. The landscape really informed the music. It gave me a sense of what I want to do.”
Liebert’s debut album was an homage to Santa Fe — which makes sense, given that the sounds of the Southwest are not much different from those of flamenco.
“What I’m doing a lot is combining Spain and Mexico,” says Liebert who also frequently mixes in Arabic scales to add the strains of Middle Eastern music — a nod to gypsy traditions and the 700 year Moorish presence in southern Spain.
While Liebert has garnered some criticism from flamenco purists who don’t appreciate his modern twist on the genre, he notes people who make music are typically in his corner.
“I produced an album by a guy who is a gypsy and learned guitar from his father and his grandfather in the south of Spain where he grew up in a cave,” says Liebert. “He said to me, ‘it’s just music.’”
“People most protective of a genre are people who are not part of the genre,” adds Liebert. “The most fierce protectors of the purity and the tradition are not Spanish, they are people who love it and are self-elected flamenco police.”
“It comes out of love, but usually it’s not the people who make the music who are most critical,” he says.
Liebert will perform in Westhampton with his band Luna Negra which includes Jon Gagan on bass guitar, percussionist Chris Steele and trumpet player JQ Whitcomb. He’s been at the WHBPAC at least three times before and promises Saturday’s show will offer songs from his entire career.
“We have over 20 years of touring, so what we’re doing is playing something from our oldest and newest albums and a selection from in between,” says Liebert.
Ottmar Liebert + Luna Negra perform at 8 p.m. this Saturday, June 15, 2013 at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach. Tickets are $35 to $55. Call 288-1500 or visit whbpac.org to purchase.